Legal Historian Ties Research to Contemporary Issues in the Law
“I came to the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UMass Amherst in 2003 because the legal studies department offered the best opportunity to do interdisciplinary legal work,” says Assistant Professor Bernie Jones, whose specialty is legal history. “I can teach all kinds of law-based classes—like an introduction to legal history, modern legal theory, and the legal history of slavery—and the department is supportive of the facultys’ research interests. I’ve worked with graduate students from history, economics and sociology. I have supervised independent study projects, sat on master’s examination committees, and a dissertation committee. We’re a great faculty doing interesting work, dedicated to teaching and research.”
Jones recently won the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation Prize for excellence in scholarship sponsored by the American Society for Legal History. The $5,000 annual prize recognizes and promotes new work in the field of American legal history by graduate students, law students and faculty who are not yet tenured. Jones was cited for her work on antebellum will contests in the South, involving elite white male testators who left bequests of freedom and property to their biological slave children and the children's mothers. Her research was documented in the summer issue of the Tulsa Law Review in an article titled “Righteous Fathers, Vulnerable Old Men and Degraded Creatures: Southern Justices on Miscegenation in the Antebellum Will Contest.”
“I’m interested in the ways historical factors shape the law and the ways law shapes historical development,” Jones explains. “Being a historian is like being a detective. One starts off with a topic and translates it into a matter for scholarly inquiry. Have other scholars written about the question? Have they missed important pieces of evidence, or read the clues in a narrow context, missing important perspectives that shed light on what was really going on? It’s about trying to figure out what has not been said.” Jones says it takes patience, hard work and discipline to do work that everyone finds interesting but not many would do.
Practicing law, she found, did not stretch her intellectual horizons, and scholarly work was so much more interesting. So she decided to go to graduate school for history. “I became interested in slaves and inheritance rights as a doctoral candidate when I read all sorts of materials on African Americans and civil rights. I hadn’t heard about cases like those, and I was curious. What I enjoy most about being a professor is that I have the great privilege of being paid to exercise my intellectual curiosity on a daily basis. My research informs my teaching and current events can inspire both.”
Jones says that issues involving race and the law can be at the forefront of policy questions, making historical memory crucial. “I look at the historical bases of contemporary questions, but through the lens of legal history. Critical thinking skills are important for legal studies majors, and our faculty works hard to help students develop them.”
To students who wonder if legal studies is a good fit, Jones offers the following advice. “If you think a lot about the role of law in society, or if you are a news junkie curious about contemporary legal issues as they develop, if you want to stretch your intellectual horizons, then legal studies is for you. If you wonder about how historical factors might be a the foundation of contemporary problems in law, think about legal history.”
March 7, 2006